Stupid Ad Perpetuates Math Myth…

There’s been a heightened awareness of math lately – or maybe it’s the case that, because I’m in the middle of thinking about math, I’m seeing it more acutely (working on education at Microsoft, a focus on science, technology, engineering, math and design – STEM-D – is a big part of what we’re doing here).   

Whether this math convergence is real or perceptual, it doesn’t matter to me.  What matters is the outcome.  Namely, that kids – no matter whether they’re boys or girls – be excited by and proficient in math.

Here are a couple of the points – one good and one stupid.  I’ll start out with the good one (to help you get over the stupid one more easily)

1)  Doing a better job tying math to what kids love.  What if kids loved math as much (and felt as good about it and proficient in it) as they love mac & cheese – or dinosaurs or princesses or race cars or whatever the heck they’re obsessing about?  2 weeks ago, my son’s teacher told me that he was goofing off during math.  She didn’t know if it was because he was so advanced that he was bored or whether it was because he’s behind and compensating with humor/distance.  His answer (which definitely made me laugh and further ingrained my confidence that we’re truly in for it when he gains more negotiating leverage) was that he was distracted by things he’s working on at home that are more interesting to him.  Her good solution was to suggest that, if he’s goofing around in math, that he has to take what he doesn’t complete home with him and has to finish that work before he can then do the other things in which he’s more interested.  A great start. 

It wasn’t until the next day, though, that my son helped me stumble on the best solution of all.  “Mom, will you help me design an airplane?” he asked me. (Note – the reason that question is not absurd is because I have a mechanical/aerospace engineering degree and did, in fact, design an airplane in college.  granted, all of that knowledge was either pushed out by marketing or nursed out by my kids so that I remember very little of what once helped me pass my classes). 

What an awesome request!  Okay – now – to pivot to the goofing off.  “Sure!  I’d love to help you design a plane.  However, it’s going to take a lot of advanced math!  It’ll take us years to get to that point where you know enough math to do the calculations.  SO – the math that you’re learning in school is actually a building block to learning airplane design! ”

My son took that information in and it has completely changed his approach to math.  The bit has flipped and he is now absolutly nutso for math – making up problem sets for himself and really getting into it – connecting it to learning about airplanes. (historical note from my mother-in-law.  apparently the same thing happened with my husband at the same age – only it was about coins that he had his “aha” moment)

SO – imagine if you will, curricula for K-5 year olds based on common obsessions?  Race car math; airplane math; time travel/dinosaur math (imagine calculating the size of the dinosaur from the weight of the coprolite – i’ll let you all look up what coprolite means); princess math; fairy math; ballerina math; bug math; horse math – and the list goes on.  It’s at times like these that I get excited about what I’m doing at work if, even in the smallest way, it’s able to facilitate this kind of engaging, individualized education for students around the globe!  Imagine – a zshops for teachers’ curricula!!!

2) First day of engineering – how it could be better!  (if it’s still done the way it was when I started) Today, I had the opportunity to recount the first day in Rutgers Engineering and finally realized what could be done to very easily counter what has been happening forever – changing what has been a hazing mentality to a promotional mentality.  On my first day, the dean addressed the freshman engineering class with this statement: “look left, look right.  at the end of 4 years, only one of you will be here.” 

Personally – I looked left & right and told my neighbors that I’d help them with a 50/50 shot.  I was joking at the time, but ultimately delivered on that – but not by dropping out.  Instead, I transferred.

I know that engineering is hard and is not for the weak of stomach or mind.  BUT – people can endure incredibly hard challenges if they’re motivated enough.  There are plenty of super smart people who start out in engineering and are turned off by this hazing mentality.  Imagine if, instead of that Engineering dean trying to scare people out of there, he (or she) started out with a video pumping up what things alumni had done with their engineering knowledge or showing business/science leaders talking about how hard it was for them – but that they made it through and succeeded?  Imagine if those first few days and weeks were filled with warm-ups, technique coaching, team-building exercises and basic skills training!  Imagine if they showed people who represented really diverse groups who had been successful!  I think I’ll share this idea with a few folks at schools…

3) The stupid ad.  I don’t even know what they were advertising other than it started out with a woman proclaiming “I was never very good at math…” – and then she droned on about calculating the effect of stimulus dollars on something or other.  AAAAARRRGGHHH!  Two horrible things about this ad: (a) that it was a woman saying she was bad at math (b) that it was anyone saying that they were bad at math.  

I firmly believe that no one is “bad at math”.  It’s simply that the way that they were taught math didn’t resonate with them – the bit never flipped.  Math didn’t learn about them.  Not the other way around.

Did you know that, in Singapore, the women/girls are better at Math? 

Net net – I’m looking forward to an increased focus on how to improve STEM-D students and how we educate our children in math – and the other areas that are not hard – they’re just not always taught according to how each individual thinks.

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One response to “Stupid Ad Perpetuates Math Myth…

  1. There are lots of great existing math programs around, but far too few people to bring them into the schools and homes. I’m the Seattle coordinator for MATHCOUNTS, a nationwide middle school math program. A fellow ‘softie founded Explorations in Math, an elementary school program in the Seattle area.

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